Illustration by Joel Benjamin

The Guide to Getting into Yeah Yeah Yeahs

It's 15 years since the New York trio's debut album signalled a guitar music revival. Their output, across four albums and three EPs, isn't all the crashing art-punk of the early years, though.

by Tshepo Mokoena; illustrated by Joel Benjamin
|
Apr 27 2018, 6:39pm

Illustration by Joel Benjamin

It all nearly ended with a fall. In 2004, while Yeah Yeah Yeahs were touring Australia, lead singer and kinetic force-of-nature Karen O torpedoed herself off the front of the stage, slipping onto her back before a sound monitor wobbled, whooshed down the five feet to where she lay and landed on her head. At that point, the band – completed by guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase – had developed a clear calling card. Since coming together in New York in 2000, their live show had largely revolved around Karen howling and flinging herself across the stage, looking like she was simultaneously trying to perform a DIY demon exorcism and spit out the lyrics to one of their frenetic, spiky tracks. I mean, Nick and Brian are both hugely talented musicians but Karen was the visual focus, whether deepthroating her mic or refreshingly pouring a beer over her own head.

The band obviously didn’t call it quits that year, though. Instead they put out three albums to follow 2003 debut Fever to Tell and their two pre-record label deal EPs, earned three Grammy nominations and became symbols of the arty end of New York’s early 2000s rock revival. So much so that by about 2005, “Karen O” was a Halloween costume idea: ripped fishnets, Converse hi-tops, some sort of skintight leotard and a bowl cut wig would have got you there. As one of the few female-fronted bands of that era, Yeah Yeah Yeahs were both treated with an outdated sense of novelty – look! A woman! Who isn’t always concerned with looking ‘pretty’! – and transformed into a symbol. Between their debut and the release of fourth album Mosquito! 13 years later, the band would empower musicians who wanted to play in a way that felt visceral and messy, as well as the young women in particular looking for representation in the overly male indie scene at the time.

Speaking to Lenny Letter last year, Karen put it like this: "It wasn't easy, but I stuck to my guns – I had to rebuild how I thought about myself being in an all-dudes rock world. Trying to be heard in that context was tough, and I had to scream and break things to make people listen to me, but they did. They listened." Now, that makes the band sound like a slog or a worthy protest act. But don’t get it twisted: Yeah Yeah Yeahs practically shat bangers. Their sound developed from Nick’s screeching guitar lines over Brian crashing his cymbals like a menace into forays in synth, electro-pop and even reggae-tinged territory (trust me, they made it work – that’s coming in a second).

This weekend marks 15 years since Fever to Tell first came out, and a few months since the band announced a series of anniversary gigs and Fever reissues. So here's a guide to untangling the band’s many releases into something that makes sense if you were aware of them but didn’t dive deep into their entire discography.

So you want to get into: Lovesick Yeah Yeah Yeahs?

We may as well get this out of the way right now: Yeah Yeah Yeahs are loud. But for all of their reputation as a beer-drenched, chaotic flurry of messy art-punk, the trio can also wade into the depths of your feelings like beavers eagerly taking to water. At this stage, I would like to invite those of you who’ve vaguely heard of the band to raise your hands if you know their 2003 single “Maps.” Yeah? Good. That crossover hit is a stepping stone to other gut-wrenching songs the band made about devotion and intimacy.

Though “Maps” came out on their debut album, it’s one of a few mellower tracks you’ll find there (including the murky “Modern Romance,” which basically sounds like a sentient tear-soaked diary page). To really dig into slow-jam Yeah Yeah Yeahs, you’d do well to pick out album tracks from their last album, 2013’s Mosquito. When Karen sings the titular hook on “Always” six times, it feels as though she’s whispering her vows to you while maintaining burning eye contact. Her voice takes on a similarly gossamer quality on It’s Blitz!’s “Skeletons,” too. But this is Yeah Yeah Yeahs, so when she’s singing about having “a man who makes me wanna kill” over Nick’s piercing guitar on Fever to Tell’s “Man” it is definitely not a hand-holding, swaying kind of love, but about one that burns with a heat you could cook over.

Speaking to Dazed earlier this year, Karen said her “sole motivation when I make music is to feel something, to touch someone emotionally, to move someone.” She was talking about the solo work she’s undertaken since Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ extended new-music hiatus in 2014, but could just as easily have meant the songs she wrote with Nick and Brian. Dive into this stuff for an antidote to the high energy of their default mode and in moments when you’re stumbling into new love and want a soundtrack.

Playlist: "Wedding Song" / "Maps" / "Modern Romance" / "Kiss, Kiss" / "Poor Song" / "Man" / "Always" / "Cold Light" / "Skeletons"

Spotify | Apple Music

So you want to get into: World-Weary Yeah Yeah Yeahs?

Cool, now we’ve got that sweet stuff out the way let’s explore the way Yeah Yeah Yeahs write songs about how life just sucks sometimes. They do so beautifully, without moaning about it. Instead, they end up elevating the textures of twentysomething angst – worries about relationships, feeling confused as hell, a general state of malaise – into a sound that’s both captivating and universal. When the band first came out, their whole schtick revolved around these three otherwise-shy people transforming onstage, knocking out the mostly raucous tracks from their first two EPs (a self-titled one in 2001, and Machine on 2002). That may have obscured their incredible knack for observational songwriting, though.

It shines on It’s Blitz!, released in 2009. That third full-length studio album sees Yeah Yeah Yeahs suddenly veer into electropop with synths buffed to a sheen. Though they sound cleaner than ever, they make songs about deep lows sound like optimistic, bleep-blooping ditties. But “Soft Shock” or “Dull Life” are steeped in a sleep-deprived, neon-lit anxiety of an insomniac's city – see the “We've seen the nightmare of the lies that you speak / The beast that I lie beneath is coming in” refrain from “Dull Life”. They sound like that feeling you get in your chest when you’ve had three big nights in a row, and you lie down to sleep already knowing your body won’t let you relax into slumber. This album, with its danceable beats, recalls the club the most – and with that, comes the feeling of limbo that sets in when you lose track of which day it is on a multiple-day bender. The dancefloor, as a place of joy, quickly turns into the blur of the after-afterparty bedroom or living room floor.

It’s not all negative – there’s gentler introspection, too. Those moments shine on tracks like Mosquito’s “Subway,” which features the real ta-tat-a-tat clatter of the New York subway wheels moving over the tracks. You’ll never feel as ‘indie film lead in emotional scene’ as when you play it on headphones while descending the filthy steps to a train platform, while Karen sings about being lost and underground – surrounded by people, yet alone.

Playlist: "Dull Life" / "10 x 10" / "The Sweets" / "Y Control" / "Miles Away" / "Runaway" / "Warrior" / "Sacrilege" / "Subway" / "Soft Shock" / "Countdown"

Spotify | Apple Music

So you want to get into: Dirty Guitar Riff Yeah Yeah Yeahs?

You could call this the banger section. Like so many of the best bands from that early 00s moment, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ tight rhythm section propelled the band beyond the insipid, mopey or chug-a-chug boring place in which so much guitar music had found itself at the time. We’re talking the heyday of Limp Bizkit, Creed and, like, Staind in the US and that of Coldplay, Travis and Starsailor in the UK. Sure, these were all very successful bands but just try listening to their filler album tracks from the early 00s now. It’s hard work.

The Strokes were first to signal a change, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs followed soon after (though YYYs’ self-titled EP came out first and both bands’ timelines run parallel to each other’s, The Strokes “broke” first). You’ll notice that as a trio, the band don’t have a bassist. And like The White Stripes – for whom Yeah Yeah Yeahs opened at New York’s Mercury Lounge, at their first-ever gig – Karen, Nick and Brian still made crashing, emotive music that could leave you wondering why any bands bothered with bass in the first place.

Fever to Tell and 2007 EP Is Is are the clearest indicators of this, when Nick – teeny-tiny in stature, topped by hair that looked like haphazardly piped black icing – really let rip. Karen sings a repeated “uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh UHHH-huh” refrain on Fever’s “Black Tongue” while Nick blasts out a relentless surf-like guitar riff. And when Brian clips his cymbals to give “Rockers to Swallow” its swinging dynamic shifts, between understated verses and roaring choruses on Is Is, it’s almost impossible to not want to swing your head around, imagining you’ve got a mic in hand and are swaggering about as Karen would.

Playlist: "Rockers to Swallow" / "Black Tongue" / "Phenomena" / "Date with the Night" /"Mysteries" / "Heads Will Roll" / "Deja Vu" / "Yeah! New York" / "Gold Lion" / "Bang"

Spotify | Apple Music

So you want to get into: Unabashedly Playful Yeah Yeah Yeahs?

Yeah Yeah Yeahs have been around long enough to not just stick to one style. Can you imagine if they’d just put out four slightly different versions of Fever to Tell and called it a day? Instead, they went on to incorporate elements of disco shimmy (“Dragon Queen”), synth gloss (“Zero”), dub reggae languor (“Under the Earth”) and experimental vocal tics throughout their following releases. “I guess one of the things that comes along with being a band for ten years is you can kind of be like, ‘Fuck it, we’re going to do what we want, who gives a shit!’” Nick told Stereogum in 2013. “And that’s incredibly liberating.”

Dig into that in the dub-like instrumental breakdown of “Honeybear,” off 2006’s Show Your Bones or the way Nick’s scratchy guitar mimics a clock’s second hand on the almost stressfully hectic “Tick.” Beyond toying with genre or song structure, the band use Karen’s voice as an instrument in ways that may make you smile. She whispers, croaks and “HEYs” on “Rich.” She hops into a rare falsetto on early cut “Boogers” and 2013’s “These Paths.” The result squeezes the band’s spontaneous live energy into the studio, making the “final version” of so many songs feel like singular takes, rather than moments rehearsed over and over again to obtain the desired effect. When the band don’t take themselves at all seriously, they’re hard to resist.

Playlist: "Under the Earth" / "Honeybear" / "Zero" / "Turn Into" / "Boogers" / "Rich" / "Dragon Queen" / "Mosquito" / "Tick" / "Faces" / "These Paths"

Spotify | Apple Music

So you want to get into: Loud, Cathartic Yeah Yeah Yeahs?

Some Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs aren’t firmly about love or throwing your body around a big city late at night. Consider these ones as centring more on a feeling, man – or, in certain moments, a sexual one. The band were often wrapped up in salacious language, potentially because male writers didn’t know how else to explain their attraction to Karen’s demeanour as a completely unhinged version of herself. The band’s second NME award win, for example, knighted Karen O as 2010’s Hottest Woman.

Debuting with single “Bang” and its “as a fuck, son, you suck” line may have made it seem like Yeah Yeah Yeahs were trying to be sexual. But it’s more of a sneer, an antagonism. "I just don't feel like what I'm doing onstage is sexy,” Karen said, to The Guardian in 2013. “Provocative, maybe, but sexy? I guess I don't really know what sexy is to a lot of people.” Ten years earlier, she’d told Rolling Stone : "The adjectives people use to describe me pretty consistently are sexed-up, oversexed or slut.” She felt it was an underestimation. So some of these songs channel that energy – a release, a full-body tremor – without being explicitly sexual. You may still want to shag to them, that’s up to you.

Playlist: "Way Out" / "Machine" / "Fancy" / "Shame and Fortune" / "Despair" / "No No No" / "Graveyard"/ "Isis" / "Down Boy" / "Shot Down"

Spotify | Apple Music

So you want to get into: Demo-Recording Yeah Yeah Yeahs?

This is the part where I address the fact that, depending on where you live, you can’t stream all of the bands earliest work in the usual legal places online. If, like me, you opened your Spotify account in Europe, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Machine EPs aren’t there, but the ghosts of some songs remain (see “Graveyard,” off Machine, in the section above). You can enjoy some of the sketches of both their early material and more recent work, via the blessing of deluxe album editions. Those of you in the US may be all set, though.

“Hysteric,” off It’s Blitz!, replaces its sharp bite with more of a soft molar chew when rendered acoustic. You get a similar effect from the “Let Me Know” demo, where the round tones of an acoustic guitar brush up against Karen’s voice like your crush seated beside you in the cinema. As Karen’s solo work shows, from her 2014 album Crush Songs to the Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack, she’s at home singing along to an acoustic guitar. In 2004, Nick described her pre-Yeah Yeah Yeahs style as "very quiet and sorrowful singer-songwriter stuff", after all. But lovers of noise, don’t despair: you still get to hear a guitar-only version of Fever to Tell screamer “Pin,” a dirgey “Ooh Ooh Ooh” four-track demo and a “Shot Down” demo so scuzzy it just farted in my face, hopped on a skateboard and rolled away.

Playlist: "Subway – NOLA Demo" / "Hysteric – Acoustic" / "Ooh Ooh Ooh – Four Track Demo" / "Shot Down – Four Track Demo" / "Let Me Know" / "Pin – Four Track Demo" / "Maps – Early Four Track Demo"

Spotify | Apple Music

You can find Tshepo absentmindedly singing the "Subway" hook on Twitter and see more of Joel's work on Instagram.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.